Two days after North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test—an explosion that Japan assessed was significantly more powerful than the North's previous test a year ago—and about a week after the regime lobbed an intermediate range ballistic missile through Japanese airspace, the United States did what it usually does: call an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting. Despite universal condemnation of North Korea's sixth nuclear blast across the chamber and a strong recognition in the Trump administration that a more comprehensive package of economic sanctions is necessary, the meeting adjourned without any resolution being tabled.
Indeed, on the North Korean nuclear issue, the international community (including the United States) has seemingly exhausted whatever creative solutions were available, and there is no doubt at this stage that the Chinese, Pyongyang's historical protector at the U.N., is fast losing patience. Yet if the Kim dynasty has exhibited any consistency over the decades, it is the willingness and ability to withstand the economic pain and deprivation that results from the Security Council's many sanctions resolutions.
The development of a nuclear weapons stockpile and a ballistic missile capability to deter the U.S and the international community is valued by the regime more than the welfare of the North Korean people.
Theoretically speaking, public comments from senior Trump administration officials that "all options are on the table" are true. But scrambling the B-1 bombers on Andersen Air Force Base and dropping payloads on North Korea's strategic weapons facilities would be an invitation to indiscriminate North Korean retaliation on the South Korean population and the roughly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed there. Unless President Trump is willing to risk a complete rupture of the U.S.-South Korea relationship and sacrifice the lives of hundreds of thousands of people (Americans included) in the process, a preventive attack is not a credible, smart, or effective option.
Outside of a genuine and imminent threat to U.S. territories that would require a pre-emptive military response — a reaction that the United States would be both morally and legally within its rights to execute — a military option on the Korean Peninsula is not a path that Washington would be smart to travel on.
The only option the U.S. should pursue is deterrence and containment: keep the Jong-un regime inside of a box, leverage America's allies in Asia in that effort, and make it crystal clear that pre-emption is official U.S. policy to deter the North Koreans from using nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles against American interests or our allies.
While there is an increasing recognition in Washington that containment of a nuclear-armed North Korea is the best option available, it is an open question whether policymakers in the U.S. national security bureaucracy have adequately contemplated what such a scenario would look like. What assets would be required to implement it, and how much diplomatic effort would the Trump administration need to expend in the effort?
Any deterrence policy against North Korea will need to be debated vigorously across the inter-agency, but here is a framework for an effective policy:
1. A recognition that North Korea is a nuclear state: For decades, Washington has tried economic sanctions, threats of military force, negotiations, concessions, and everything else in between, but the Kim regime remains nuclear-capable. The U.S. and the international community more broadly may not want to formally recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, but this reluctance does not change the reality of the situation.
Whether the world likes it or not, North Korea is a member of the elite nuclear club—if Kim Jong Il was not willing to eliminate his nuclear stockpile before 2006, when he had yet to test a single device, his son Kim Jong Un is highly unlikely to do so when his regime reportedly has an arsenal of up to 60 nuclear weapons. The first step of a new U.S. strategy is working from an accurate foundation: Denuclearization is increasingly out of reach and may not even be a realistic possibility anymore.
2. Receiving China's endorsement and cooperation: As former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger has written, "[A]n understanding between Washington and Beijing is the essential prerequisite for the denuclearization of Korea." This is true as well with any containment strategy, where Chinese cooperation will be an absolute necessity if it is to be effective in minimizing the danger that Pyongyang represents to the region. Due to Beijing's lax enforcement of previous Security Council resolutions and its opposition to U.S. secondary sanctions over the years, working with China in any capacity will likely grate on the Washington policy community.
If China's public statements are a window into Beijing's thinking on the problem, it would appear that Xi Jinping is agitated, if not angry, about Kim Jong Un's behavior. This provides an opening, however small, for U.S. officials to arrive at a common understanding with their Chinese counterparts on the kinds of enforcement actions that could contain North Korea.
These actions would include an inspection of all North Korea-affiliated cargo into and out of China; grounding aircraft or vessels connected with Pyongyang in any way, shape, or form in order to guarantee that banned items are not on board; enacting large fines on any Chinese person or entity doing business with the North Korea military, intelligence service, Workers Party, or government-owned or operated business; and forbidding the importation of additional North Korean laborers from the Chinese market.
3. Let South Korea take more responsibility for its defense: As the nuclear threat from North Korea has grown, the South Korean public has gotten increasingly supportive of their government taking on more responsibility for their own national security. In a 2016 poll, almost 60 percent of South Koreans supported the idea of Seoul acquiring its own nuclear weapons capability. Nearly 70 percent of South Koreans would also support a return of tactical U.S. nuclear weapons on South Korean soil.
One of the most effective ways to send North Korea a message of deterrence is encouraging South Korea to build up its own defensive weapons capabilities. Reports that Presidents Trump and Moon Jae-in agreed to enhance the range and payload of South Korea's missile inventory is a good first step in that direction—not only does this agreement provide Seoul with a stronger independent military capability, but also makes it obvious to the North Koreans that the South can respond to a provocation in a quick and resolute fashion without waiting for Washington's bureaucracy to work its will.
4. Establish dialogue with the North: While comprehensive negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang on denuclearization probably won't happen in the near future, this should not obstruct the U.S. from setting up a channel of communication with the North Koreans that would minimize misunderstandings. Deterrence is not simply a matter of beefing-up military capacity, drawing red lines, or sending bombers on practice drills—deterrence requires the effective application of diplomacy and communicating with an adversary in a clear, consistent, and efficient manner about what is and is not acceptable.
The Cold War was full of cases in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union misinterpreted the intentions of one another, epitomized in 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The only reason why misinterpretation didn't result in a catastrophic nuclear exchange or a major conventional conflict was due in large part to a hotline between Washington and Moscow and dialogue among American and Russian officials. If a hot line with Moscow was a no-risk, high-reward, common sense option for the U.S., it would be just as helpful for the U.S. with respect to Pyongyang.
5. More priority on missile defense: Deterrence also means improving our defensive capabilities. While Kim Jong Un is not a suicidal maniac looking for a direct military conflict with the U.S.—one that would almost certainly kill him, his family, and the regime his grandfather and father built—miscalculation between nations is possible (if not likely, considering the short-sighted and misguided statements from administration officials, such as Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley). Disagreements happen between friends, allies, and partners; not surprisingly then, they also happen between enemies and adversaries.
The Trump administration, therefore, should invest more dollars and manpower into homeland missile defense. Enhancing research and development in missile defense platforms is politically popular in Congress.
North Korea presents a problem that cannot be resolved with coercion, but the problem must be addressed thoughtfully to be countered effectively and at an acceptable cost. U.S. policymakers should accelerate planning on a North Korea deterrence and containment strategy, the same strategy that proved to work with far stronger adversaries, such as the Soviet Union and China.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities. His opinions are his own.
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